United and Emirates Strike Code-Share Deal—What That Means for Travelers

The new partnership will result in better flight connections but it will be a mixed bag for frequent fliers.

Dubai/United Arab Emirates 08/12/2019 photo from  drone on the Dubai International Airport

United’s MileagePlus members will only be able to earn and redeem miles on Emirates when connecting via United’s new Newark to Dubai flight.

Photo by Shutterstock

It’s official: After weeks of speculation, United Airlines and Emirates will soon start selling seats on each other’s flights, as part of a broad code-share deal between the two former rivals.

As part of the partnership announced Wednesday by the airlines’ executives at a ceremony held at Washington Dulles Airport, United will launch flights from Newark to Emirates’ main hub in Dubai in March 2023. The flights, which are already on sale, will enable the U.S. carrier’s customers to connect on Emirates and its affiliate Flydubai to more than 100 different cities beyond the Persian Gulf, in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

In the reverse direction, Emirates passengers flying to United’s main hubs in Chicago, San Francisco, and Houston will be able to connect to nearly 200 U.S. cities via United’s domestic network. At the other eight U.S. airports served by Emirates—Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, JFK in New York, Orlando, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.—passengers can book connecting flights through the partners’ interline arrangement.

Of course, code-share agreements are fairly routine among international airlines. But this one has gotten extra attention as a sign of an ongoing thaw in the relations between the U.S. “big three”—American, Delta, and United—and the Middle East trio of Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar. In a lobbying effort that began nearly a decade ago, the U.S. lines fought to restrict their Middle East counterparts’ expansion in the United States, arguing that the state-owned carriers unfairly benefited from government subsidies and the Gulf airlines denied the charges.

Once the pandemic hit, however, tensions began to cool as global air travel ground to a halt. Emirates president Tim Clark made a point of expressing interest in forging closer ties with his American counterparts.

But Emirates wasn’t lacking in U.S. partners entirely; since 2012, it has enjoyed a code-share tie-in with JetBlue Airways, which will be phased out by October 30 to make way for the United deal. Meanwhile, Etihad, in neighboring Abu Dhabi, has just announced it would add flights to its existing code-share partnership with the New York–based JetBlue. And in a related development, Qatar Airways and American Airlines in June said they would expand their alliance, with a new flight on American from New York’s JFK airport to Doha and additional code-sharing on Qatar flights beyond its hub.

Qatar is also part of the oneworld alliance helmed by American and British Airways. Emirates, however, has consistently resisted joining the Star Alliance, the largest airline fraternity in the world, which was founded by United, Singapore, Lufthansa, and other major players. Emirates has said that it prefers bilateral arrangements, such as the one it just inked with United.

“Had Emirates actually joined Star Alliance, everything would have been different,” said travel expert Gary Leff, founder of the View from the Wing website. “There would have been recognition of elite status across airlines, as well as mileage earning and redemption.”

He described the two carriers’ deal as “surprisingly modest.” He noted that United’s MileagePlus members will not be able to earn and redeem miles on all Emirates flights, but only on connections to and from United’s new Newark to Dubai flight. Meanwhile, Emirates loyalty members will be able to earn—but not redeem—miles on United.

Bottom line, he said, is that initially, “Most customers aren’t going to experience this partnership in any meaningful way.”

According to Ben Schlappig, who writes the One Mile at a Time aviation blog, there will be some mutual mileage opportunities, but, “They’ll be frustratingly limited.” Schlappig notes that in addition to the mileage arrangements outlined above, premium customers will receive reciprocal lounge access when connecting on flights between the United States and United Arab Emirates.

Code-share activities and United’s new flight to Dubai are subject to government approvals.

Barbara Peterson is Afar’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.
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